Aesthetics, Translation and World-Building

A link to source: transmediale 2018 exhibition “Territories of Complicity” documentation website (Sprawling Swamps); via a still image of Sprawling Swamps (2016-ongoing) by Femke Herregraven – installation, interactive 3d environment, video, audio.

Let’s continue the discussion from the previous post, where I observed recent transmediale, in particular, its last panel ‘Confronting Social Cybernetics’ that revisited Marshall McLuhan’s legacy and catalysed transmediale’s self-criticality. As mentioned in the post, one participant from the audience suggested to look for alternatives for the discussion, and drew attention to the activity of ‘doing.’ In this respect, there are two truths. As moderator Baruch Gottlieb noted – the festival is a ‘structure’ and a ‘product’ as such, and at the same time, if we look at the website information, it is clear that the work of the whole transmediale collective is enormous research and through that – translation.  So, if ‘doing’ is interpreted as aesthetics, discussion – as translation,  how to compare aesthetics and translation?

The meaning of aesthetics is diverse. Aesthetics can characterise any thing, it can be immediately related to art, but let’s ignore this and apply a more theoretical parameter for a start – aesthetics as opposite in nature to activity of translation. The difference is that ‘translation’ is considered transparent – it draws attention to something else such as knowledge; but we call something ‘aesthetics’ when it has intrinsic value of reality within itself. Even though translation can be thought to be minor, it is obviously very demanded. Often it is important that aesthetics is translated or discussed. But if something that is expected to be ‘translation’ and subject matter is aestheticized then its reception can be mixed. For example, professor Dave Harris has devised youtube series – Deleuze for the Desperate to give resources and tips to those students who need to come to grips with the popular Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari which is considered difficult by any standard. But the language of Thousand Plateaus, as Harris confirms, is ‘deliberately rambling.’ [1] So on the one hand, aesthetics presents challenge, on the other hand, Deleuze & Guattari insist on experiencing aesthetics rather than clarity/translation. Where is the balance?

tansmediale is translation only to an extent; its quality as translation is absorbed within aesthetics of the whole event, and particular artworks. Art that occupies itself with research and translation prioritise aesthetic rights. During the panel ‘Extracting Hi(stories) of Complicity’ at transmediale 2018, Femke Herregraven was questioned in relation to her work of visual mapping and imagery that pointed to exploitation of natural resources through infrastructures of capital. The question was about where she situated herself between aesthetics and activism, and I think ‘aesthetics’ was used in the sense of beautification. The artist noted that one way of communication is through an article, but artist operates differently, and if images can attract attention then it is considered effective.

The audience comment above also evokes that activism is more closely related to what is considered translation, not aesthetics. If I remember correctly from transmediale 2018 discussions, a comment was made at some stage that aesthetics was not necessarily good, meaning that perhaps it was not necessarily effective. Even though the spirt of transmediale is that of activism I think it is wrong to disconnect aesthetics from activism. A discussion is activism, not because it is a discussion but because it presents itself as an aesthetic form of resistance. It is already the activity of ‘doing.’ In fact, translation and aesthetics are entangled.

Perhaps the distinction between what is considered activism and aesthetics is so strict because the current tendency of activism is focused on the strategies of subversion, confronting and negation as demonstrated by transmediale. The radical spirit for social change needs to be negating (violent, as McLuhan would say) but the classic avant-garde had the capacity to be affirmative in its nature. It has been interesting to follow e-flux collaboration with Boris Groys as they recover materials and previously overlooked histories of avant-garde – just this month  e-flux journal (#88) ‘Russian Cosmism’ has been published. The world-building idea of this classic avant-garde seems to be different from, for example, transmediale. I think excavation of avant-garde is very timely to glean from, and I am convinced that it is effective to apply active aesthetics as world-building.

But it can be also sensed, that there is a need for ‘building.’ As I mentioned in the previous post, during the Confronting Social Cybernetics panel Jonathan Beller deliberately appropriated the ‘negative’ voice which could be seen very much in consistency with transmediales overall tone. But he weakened negativism and perhaps in a much more McLuhanist way highlighted the idea of ‘re-organizing imaginaries’ with the awareness our distributed personhood. And it feels that re-organizing imaginaries is reliant on concept of building (innovating?) rather than destruction. A form of violence as world-building is possibly the only real form of violence. 

 

[1] Dave Harris, Deleuze for the Desperate #1 Introduction, published January 31, 2016, YouTube.

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